May 31, 2019
“I challenge one conventional notion of modernity and suggest that we should be less surprised than we usually are to find scientists of all stripes keeping company with magicians; that reason does not eliminate ‘superstition’ but piggybacks upon it; that mechanism often produces vitalism; and that often, in a single room, we can find both séance and science. The single most familiar story in the history of science is the tale of disenchantment — of magic’s exit from the henceforth law-governed world. I am here to tell you that as broad cultural history, this narrative is wrong.”
It’s a bold argument that Jason Josephson-Storm makes in The Myth of Disenchantment ― that the “disenchantment” thesis, which underpins so much of what we take for granted in the way we think about religion and its place in human life and culture, is false. Indeed, as he puts it later in the book, “Attempts to suppress magic have historically failed more often than they’ve succeeded. It is unclear to me that science necessarily deanimates nature. In fact … we have never been disenchanted.”
Much of my own work has not been in the field of religious studies per se. Instead, most of my time tends to be focussed on international relations, broadly defined, though this often makes some contact with or consideration of religious studies, also broadly defined, unavoidable. Nevertheless, the notion of “disenchantment” plays a role in both, in that discussions around religion in public life and political realities are certainly underpinned by that acceptance that “disenchantment” is the default. But I’ve long felt that this widespread acceptance is both uncritical and cheaply won; hence, seeing someone like Josephson-Storm take on the idea with such vigour is rather invigorating.
So, I decided to engage with Josephson-Storm on some of the issues in his book ― first about disenchantment, and then about modernity.
I’m generally quite suspicious of arguments that claim a certain level of universal utility, so just as “enchantment” has been criticised as not capturing the broad set of experiences and realities of the human condition, I wondered if The Myth of Disenchantment did the same, though in the opposite direction. Here, I’m using “enchantment” as an axiomatic term for what Sayyid Naquib al-Attas described as a vision of reality and truth that appears before our minds eye, revealing what existence is all about ― that is, a “worldview” ― but as informed by sacredness. It is one specifically rooted in the bringing together of all souls before the Divine, where the Lordship of the Divine is recognised, before this world is brought into existence.
This is not really a concern or a critique that can hold up, though, because it is evident that Josephson-Storm focusses on the West in his examination of the notion of “disenchantment.” Nor does he tend to express the notion that the West is somehow “universal,” which other authors might have deigned to do (to their detriment). So, one cannot draw the conclusion he is claiming his observations are globally applicable. This is a book about the West ― the counterpart, perhaps, to his earlier work on East Asia.
Perhaps as a result of my own interests, however, I found myself wanting Josephson-Storm to de-essentialise the West somewhat, because his “disenchantment” of the West only has value insofar as it depends on a particular concept of “the West.” For example, he notes:
Indeed, if there is one thing we’ve been taught to take for granted, it is that the contemporary, industrial, capitalist societies of Western Europe and North America have lost their sense of the sacred, and that it is this absence that makes them modern.
But he can only make this claim by focussing on certain types of Western societies, or by generalising them to such an extent that they are rendered homogenous. This is to the exclusion of, for example, the presence and contribution of Muslim Westerners ― one can mention René Guénon, or Mihai Vâlsan, or any number of other twentieth-century authors and intellectuals who became Muslim. Josephson-Storm mentions Guénon once, but is silent about his Islam.
I mention the “Islam” question here because, frankly, this is where a good deal of the hard edges of the analytical frames employed to study the West, historically and more recently, become apparent. The absence of such a crucial aspect of Western civilisation in a discussion about disenchantment is less helpful than its presence in the analytical framing ― particularly given the impact of Islam within, as well as without, the West. At the same time, no book can cover everything – and Josephson-Storm quite rightly pointed out to me that he had to trim his book already substantially in order to meet the publisher’s word limit.
It may be well something, one is tempted to think, he might look at in the future. When I put it to him that there very much indeed to be gained by including Islam and Muslims in the analytical framing of such an issue as the composition and constitution of “the West,” he responded quite definitively: “I agree.”
Let me be very clear: Josephson-Storm is not one of those in the public arena who problematise Islam and Muslims in a vulgar fashion. The next task, perhaps, is for a study into how Muslims and Islam do alter the way we frame our thinking about disenchantment. That isn’t to say that all Muslim thinkers in the twentieth century who took critical views of enchantment were necessarily drawing simply on Islamic modes of thought; on the contrary, there is ample evidence to suggest that they were first inspired by other sources altogether. But their perspectives, nevertheless, offer another perspective on how Europeans might have engaged with the question of disenchantment.
For while the Muslim European presence is in some respects new as a result of relatively recent migration, it is also very old. This has partly to do with Muslim Spain, but the Muslim presence goes much further and wider than that one pre-modern example, and its influence on the Western intellectual tradition remains very important. Both Wael Hallaq and George Makdisi have explored this influence at some length, but that exploration needs now to be extended to how it influenced Western notions of disenchantment. Certainly, there are contemporary Muslim figures within the West who are quite intrigued by disenchantment discussions, and persist in “enchanting” their worlds, as it were – from deep within the Western frame, drawing on a sense of “rootedness” within the West, while remaining clearly and patently connected to a more timeless Islamic tradition.
Interestingly, in his book and in our conversation, Josephson-Storm offers a strident critique of Charles Taylor, a philosopher we both deeply respect and from whom we’ve learned a great deal. Nevertheless, as we discussed how central the assumption of disenchantment is within Taylor’s work, Josephson-Storm offered various pieces of evidence to the contrary. It is a critique that I think Taylor might take on board, to a point ― that the experience of disenchantment may not be as complete as he argues in A Secular Age. It isn’t, Taylor argues, that there are remnants of enchantment left-over from the medieval world against the backdrop of a more total disenchantment. Rather ― and I think this is where Josephson-Storm importantly nuances the way we discuss enchantment in the world ― “new enchantments regularly emerge, just as old ones fade or change shape.” That can fit very easily in the overall scheme that Taylor develops, particularly considering the existence of the idea of the “nova effect” in Taylor’s work.
Taylor could take on board Josephson-Storm’s reflections, by my thinking, in a way that neither presumes the absoluteness of disenchantment nor weakens Taylor’s crucial insights ― one might even argue it just brings out a certain emphasis. After all, Taylor’s contention, “Everyone can agree that one of the big differences between us and our ancestors of 500 years ago is that they lived in an ‘enchanted’ world and we do not,” still holds, in my view. But I would not assume this to mean that enchantment or disenchantment represent a kind of total characteristic of a society at large. Rather, what we can legitimately claim is that we have less enchantment today than we might have had two centuries or more ago.
After some back and forth with Josephson-Storm on Charles Taylor, it seemed we might have to agree to disagree vis-à-vis how much Josephson-Storm’s account alters some secondary aspects of Taylor’s overall theory ― but perhaps we just needed to discuss it further.
And it is on this topic ― the different modes and ways in which enchantment and disenchantment take place over time ― that I believe Josephson-Storm’s key contribution can be seen, because he traces how those that believe modernity necessarily means a total disenchantment arrived at that claim, and how they understood it. It is fascinating to see how many of the modern theorists who have claimed the “disenchantment” succeeded were themselves engaged in many types of spiritually-related pursuits:
Why did European societies come to think of themselves as disenchanted? How did Europe come to imagine — even to the extent of taking it as the central feature of its civilization — that it did not believe in spirits, despite persistent evidence to the contrary? Why were social scientists drawn irrevocably to the very beliefs they decried as primitive superstitions? How in the face of widespread belief in spirits and magic did disenchantment come to function as a regime of truth or disciplinary norm in the human sciences? In other words, how did Europeans come to end up with a society that both represses magic and in which magic proliferates? When and how did the myth of disenchantment emerge?
Or, as Josephson-Storm puts it elsewhere: the modern world is disenchanting ― but not necessarily “disenchanted” (if by that we mean completely or totally). For that alone, I would find the work to be of great value. As he goes on to write:
Disenchantment is a myth. The majority of people in the heartland of dis-enchantment believe in magic or spirits today, and it appears that they did so at the high point of modernity. Education does not directly result in dis-enchantment. Indeed, one might hazard the guess that education allows one to maintain more cognitive dissonance rather than less. Secularization and disenchantment are not correlated. Moreover, it is easy to show that, almost no matter how you define the terms, there are few figures in the history of the academic disciplines that cannot be shown to have had some relation or engagement with what their own epoch saw as magic or animating forces … When combined with survey after survey that suggests popular belief in the supernatural, miracles, witch-craft, spirits, and the mysterious, it makes it hard to countenance the idea that disenchantment is the central feature of the history of the industrialized “West” … [W]e live in a disenchanting world in which magic is embattled and intermittently contained within its own cultural sphere, but not a disenchanted one in which magic is gone. Restated, magic never truly vanished.
Now, having said all that, it’s clear that Josephson-Storm is referring to “magic” in a particular way ― one that does not necessarily match the definitions of “magic” in all faith traditions. But leaving that aside, if one argues that the modern world is disenchanting, and that modernity has more forces than ever before that aim at desacralisation, then that is something rather difficult to argue against.
Something that is clear is that, in so far as modernity is inextricably bound up with ideas of secularisation and reorienting the human being away from the sacred, modernity continues to see an insistence from various quarters that to connect to the Divine ― however defined ― is at the root of the human experience. How and why the modern world seems so oblivious to this fact, and how it explains that obliviousness, is an interesting historical exploration ― and to that end, Josephson-Storm’s work is fascinating indeed.
Dr H.A. Hellyer is senior nonresident fellow atthe Atlantic Council and the Royal United Services Institute, and a visiting professor at the Centre for Advanced Studies on Islam, Science and Civilisation in Kuala Lumpur. He is currently on the steering committee for a multi-year EU-funded project on “Radicalisation, Secularism and the Governance of Religion,” which brings together European, North African and Asian perspectives with a consortium of 12 universities and think-tanks.
Source: ABC Religion & Ethics